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The Instigator is the problem and other Myths

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There has been a lot of talk around the NHL about how the instigator penalty represents everything that is wrong with the league and that it should be abolished. According to what many people are saying, if Gary Bettman would simply reverse this rule, then the NHL would suddenly become a utopia! Players would be policing themselves and the simple fear of retribution would be adequate to automatically clean up the marginal and dirty play.

It's not that easy, people! Here's my opinion about some of the common myths and facts which are related to "The Instigator".

Myth #1. The Instigator Penalty is Gary Bettman's fault.

Fact. The unpopular penalty was on the books before Bettman ever took office as commissioner. It wasn't his idea, it wasn't put forth under his direction, and in essence he has nothing to do with it.

Myth #2. Bettman can change the rule, but refuses to do so.

Fact. Gary Bettman is nothing more than a puppet for the 30 owners of the league. When and if they get together and decide to change it, he will have some input but will end up doing exactly as he is told to do regarding it.

Myth #3. Allowing players to police themselves will clean up the game.

Fact. One reason that the instigator penalty came about in the first place (in 1986) was to help reduce fighting and violence. Several players were going around "policing" each other all game long. Sometimes things got out of control and the league felt like they had to do something to salvage the credibility of the game.

(The following is just my opinion and not that of the NHL, NHLPA, Carolina Hurricanes, hockey writers guild, bloggers association, or hockey fans in general)

Pardon me if I fail to grasp the logic that by allowing and promoting more violence, the league will be protecting players and reducing cheap shots. Does anyone really think that the "fear of retribution" is going to slow down a hothead like Chris Simon? Besides, what type of retribution would be doled out? Is a tough guy like Colton Orr going to be deterred because he's a afraid of getting "beat up" by another team's tough guy? Of course not! These guys live for altercations and they would relish more of them.

Most of the questionable hitting that happens in the sport occurs because of spur of the moment reactions, not because of any well thought out planning. I find it hard to believe that the typical goon will be thinking to himself, "I better not hit Sydney Crosby high because Georges Laraque might beat me up". On the other hand, if they knew that they would get a long suspension and possibly kicked out of the league for repeated questionable behavior, that should act as a much stronger deterrent.

The major problem in my opinion, is that the league office is far too inconsistent with it's rulings and punishment. For instance, suspending someone 2 games for breaking another player's neck (Erik Cole) doesn't send a strong enough message. Suspending a player a game or two for nearly ending another's career, (Patrice Bergeron), doesn't cut the mustard either, accident or not. The suspensions have to be more meaningful to make a difference.

There should also be rules against high hits to the head, period. No other major professional sport allows it, why should hockey? How many more superstars will the sport lose because of concussions handed out by talentless goons, before things change? I have been watching hockey for decades, but I love it more right now than I ever have. There's always room for improvement, but reverting to the ways of the 80's would be a step backwards.

Could the instigator penalty be tweaked and improved upon? Of course, and the Board of Governors is contemplating changes at this time. But don't look for the unpopular penalty to be abolished anytime soon.

Believe it or not, I actually found a sportswriter who agrees with me about this topic.

A Little Research and Development Could do NHL a World of Good

(an excerpt... story by Ken Campbell)

And, of course, there's the omnipresent contingent of players, fans and media who continually harp on the dreaded instigator rule. They're the ones who want it abolished so tough guys such as Riley Cote and Jesse Boulerice, who are supposed to keep everyone honest when they're not bashing other players' heads in, can maintain peace and order on the ice and keep those little pukes from carrying their sticks too high.

At no point in the debate, however, has anyone pointed out a couple of simple realities.

First of all, the instigator rule was established in order to keep skilled players from getting beaten up. It was also to cut down on the silly premeditated fights. Even Pat Quinn, who later in his career became a vocal crusader for abolishing the instigator penalty, saw the merits in it when the league put teeth into the rule in 1986.

"What we've done today should go a long way toward eliminating the premeditated fight and fighting as a strategy," he said at the time. Plus, the instigator penalty is failing miserably, largely because it rarely gets called. Through early December, there were just 13 instigator penalties called on 397 fighting majors, meaning it was called just once every 15.3 fights. That's compared to once every 7.5 fights last season and once every 7.1 in '05-06.

Carolina General Manager Jim Rutherford recently said that he is contemplating making a move for a known enforcer. Unfortunately, the team feels the need to do so because officiating and league rulings are so inconsistent. Will an enforcer scare other teams into not taking liberties with this team's skilled players? I'll believe it when I see it.

In my opinion, what this team needs are for the players currently on the roster to be willing to dole out a little more physical punishment of their own. Coach Kevin McCarthy said it best during an interview between periods of the New York game. "This team needs to be initiating contact, not reacting to it". I don't think that you need to have a goon to do that.